Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

First as Farce, Then as Tragedy: Waterloo in British Song

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

First as Farce, Then as Tragedy: Waterloo in British Song

Article excerpt

A moment pause, ye British Fair, While pleasure's phantom ye pursue; And say, if sprightly dance or air Suit with the name of Waterloo? Awful was the victory! Chasten'd should the triumph be; 'Midst the laurels she has won, Britain mourns for many a Son.  Shall scenes like these the dance inspire? Or wake the enlivening notes of mirth? O! shiver'd be the recreant lyre That gave the base idea birth! Other sounds, I ween were there, Other music rent the air! Other waltz the warriors knew When they closed on Waterloo.  --Robert Shorter, stanzas one and five of "On Seeing in a List of New Music, The Waterloo Waltz" [1817] (1) 

THE EXTRACTS ABOVE ARE FROM A POEM PUBLISHED IN SHERWIN'S POLITIcal Register, a Painite weekly sold for two pence and therefore aimed at a mass market. The journal was published in Fleet Street by William Sherwin and Richard Carlile and would be forcibly closed by the administration in the wake of Peterloo two years later. (2) Shorter's title makes clear that he has neither read nor heard the waltz in question; the mere fact of its existence is enough to move him to versification. His ire, and the reasons behind it, bear a good deal of scrutiny if we are interested in how people from the general mass of society responded to Waterloo in Britain, especially via the medium of popular song. But before considering the significant implications of Shorter's apparent indignation at so slight a thing as the title of a dance tune, I would like to consider what other ears, less stoppered by outrage, might have heard in a "Waterloo Waltz."

There is a piece by that name of far more recent vintage: it is part of Nino Rota's soundtrack for the 1970 film Waterloo, available on YouTube. (3) The orchestra strikes up exactly three minutes into the clip and does not down instruments until 8:25, when the serious business of men looking at maps demands silence and a closed door. The scene enacted is of course the Duchess of Richmond's ball, June 15, 1815--though the surroundings imagined here by the director, Sergei Bondarchuk, are rather grander than the probable reality of a low-ceilinged coach house. The five minutes in question are quite literally melodramatic, the waltz's sprightly A-section accompanying sweeping shots of dancers and frivolous discussion of Frenchmen's helmets, with the turn to the more troubling B-section timed to soundtrack somber discussion of death and bloodshed. When battle literally intrudes in the form of the mud-spattered General Muffling, the Duchess remarks to Wellington, "that gentleman will spoil the dancing," and, as tension mounts, the music slurs to a halt. Wellington requests that it continue and a sweeping, turbulent C-section follows, whilst candles gutter in an equally intrusive thunderstorm, and officers mill about in disarray. It is to my mind a perfectly conceived and exceedingly silly piece of cinema, but more to our purpose is its proposition that waltzes and warfare are fundamentally incongruous and may thus be juxtaposed to considerable dramatic effect.

Rota's composition, crafted to serve these ends, is a complex piece of music embedded with a very obvious succession of meanings; it returns later in the film as a sonic ghost, the ironic and pathetic echo of a very corporeal tragedy. If, by contrast, we go hunting for the waltz that upset Shorter, we find no such sophistication of intent. At least three plausible candidates are extant: a "Waterloo Waltz" that was "composed expressly" for the women's magazine La Belle Assemblee by a Charlotte Reeve, and included as an embellishment in its October 1815 issue; (4) a waltz with flute or string accompaniment by the obscure I. C. Mencke printed in London "for the author" in that year and subsequently reissued; (5) and Federigo Fiorillo's "The Waterloo or Belle Alliance Military Waltz, Composed for the Piano Forte, and Dedicated to his Grace The Duke of Wellington & Prince Blucher." (6) All three resist sustained musical analysis by virtue of their extreme generic conformity: the first two in particular boast no distinguishing features, and none contains any music that could be interpreted as martial tone-painting, or in any way representational of or allusive to the titular battle. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.